Walk-on receiver Sam Knapp was battered and bruised throughout the
week leading up to Stanford's game against UCLA in 2011. His scout
team duties placed him at tight end, where he helped the first-team
Cardinal defense prepare for Bruin behemoth Joseph Fauria. On film,
coaches had noticed that UCLA had taken a liking to a certain
crossing pattern involving their six-foot-seven inch tight end.
Naturally, Knapp was enlisted to simulate it.
"All I did the whole week was run straight from one side of the
field to the other side, trying to hit a defensive end," he
said. "I got my butt kicked
The Cardinal would spank UCLA 45-17 that Saturday. One of the game's
defining plays came when Fauria ran the same exact pattern that
Knapp had been simulating on the scout team all week long. Stanford
linebacker Blake Lueders was ready for it. Oomph. With a hit
that reverberated on both sidelines, he pulverized Fauria.
"You could hear the wind get knocked out of him," Knapp smiles. "I
felt validated, because I knew what that must have felt like. I
think I got Blake ready to do that."
Walk-ons win the unheralded battles for Stanford football. For some, the spotlight does eventually arrive. Take Ryan Whalen, for
example. He earned a scholarship in 2007, became the Cardinal's
leading receiver in 2008, and ended up with the NFL's Cincinnati Bengals in 2011. That's the ultimate success story. But the vast
majority of walk-ons remain unnoticed in the public eye.
Still, their contributions behind the curtains provide another
critical advantage for a successful football program, and their
stories within Stanford's system shed light on a vital ingredient of
the Cardinal's success that is also often overlooked.
Jim Harbaugh's staff recruited Knapp, the son of Stanford
men's swimming head coach Ted Knapp, while he was still at nearby
Menlo-Atherton High School. Cason Kynes, meanwhile, took a more circuitous path onto the Cardinal's roster. The
Annandale, Va. native walked into the Stanford football office
September of his sophomore year without having talked to a single
member of the coaching staff. He left a video of his high school
highlights with Director of Player Development Ron Lynn and hoped
for the best.
Just a few months later, Kynes was a member of the Stanford football
team. He would become known for his reckless abandon and
bludgeoning ways on Stanford's special teams unit. (Coaches were
forced to instruct him to stop hitting the fullbacks, because he was
bruising them so badly from the scout team.)
But first, Kynes found himself stretching with Andrew Luck before a morning
workout. The future NFL Pro Bowl quarterback had a question for the new
"If you were a medieval warrior, what would be your weapon of
Kynes responded by choosing the mace.
"I would pick the longbow," Luck offered in his own fitting fashion.
Kynes won't soon forget his memorable interactions with Luck or his
own underdog success stories. And neither will Knapp, running back
Andrew Stutz, or linebacker Brent Etiz. All four players shared
their Farm football experiences with The Bootleg before they
received their Stanford diplomas this past Sunday. All provided
a uniquely fascinating take on the beating heart of a Cardinal
football program flourishing in the midst of a golden age, thanks in
large part to the cohesive nature of the team that welcomed them
with open arms.
The conversation frequently circled back to Luck, a superstar
extremely popular with all of the walk-ons because of how he
encapsulated the down-to-earth mentality that allowed them to
quickly acclimate and contribute to the program. When Kynes first
nervously entered the locker room in the spring of 2011, he only
recognized a few faces. But Luck, coming off his Orange Bowl MVP
showing and decision to return to school for his senior year,
approached him immediately.
"Hey man, I'm Andrew, it's nice to have you," he said.
"Thanks, yeah, I know who you are," a stunned Kynes responded.
Within short order, Luck was discussing his medieval weapon of
choice with walk-ons and scholarship players alike. It was just one
of the ways that he fulfilled his goal of talking to every one of
his Stanford teammates about something other than football.
Football is a Meritocracy
"We all had those nerves, looking around [at all the other
walk-ons], thinking 'are you as nervous as I am?” Stutz said. “Our first
interaction with the team was with each other, dealing with [sports
performance coordinator] Shannon Turley. "I was concerned that [it might be
difficult to fit in as a walk-on], but there was no divide. You can
go to a bunch of freshman today [now sophomores], and a
lot of them wouldn't know we're actually walk-ons."
"I have a hard time picturing that walk-ons get integrated as well
at other big programs as we did at Stanford," Knapp added.
A recent Bootleg series examined the various ingredients of the
"secret sauce" that has fueled Stanford football's epic rise to
glory, and, along those lines, Knapp's point is a key detail
that should not be ignored. It speaks to the quality of the
individuals involved with Stanford football, a collection of
personality types that has fostered the team's unusual cohesion and
development toward a common goal. Remarkably, fullback Geoff Meinken, a scholarship player who recently graduated alongside with
Knapp and the other senior walk-ons, recently told The Bootleg that
he does not remember a single instance of locker room disagreement
throughout his four years on the team.
"Andrew Luck told us that football is like a meritocracy," Etiz
said. "You can't keep a guy off the field if he contributes. That
leads to respect. As you begin to establish yourself as a football
player, you gain the respect and trust of your teammates."
Thanks to the structure of Stanford's program, this opportunity to
earn respect was there for the 2009 class of walk-ons, and they took
full advantage of it. Etiz, in particular, enjoyed a movie-like
journey. As a native of Clovis in California's San Joaquin Valley,
he grew up a fan of the San Francisco 49ers. Former Stanford
defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, who migrated with Jim Harbaugh to
the NFL after the 2010 season, invited Etiz to partake in a
three-day 49ers' rookie minicamp that wrapped up just this
It was, in effect, a "surreal" graduation present for Etiz, a player
who also enjoyed his share of fantastic memories in a Stanford
uniform. In 2011, the coaching staff made good on a promise to
anoint the special teams player of the week as a team captain for
the following game, so Etiz represented the Cardinal at midfield of
the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, of all places, in 2011.
"I can't believe I'm saying this, but Brent Etiz will be our captain
for the USC game," head coach David Shaw told the locker room, which
promptly erupted in uproarious approval.
So, on October 29, Etiz marched out alongside Luck and Michael Thomas to face Matt Barkley and T.J. McDonald in front of 93,000 fans
and a national television audience.
"I can only imagine what was going through Barkley's head when he
saw me, No. 50, out there," Etiz said, laughing. "'Who the heck is this
guy? We haven't seen him on film!'"
That night saw Stanford win a heartrending triple overtime duel
56-48, but there was some comic relief before the extra period. Not
realizing that only one captain handled midfield duties for the
overtime coin toss, Etiz briefly thought he'd lucked out and would
be able to jog out to midfield again. But Luck intercepted him
"Listen, sit back on this one," No. 12 said, putting his arm on Etiz's
shoulder. "I have this one taken care of."
Wake Forest: The Annihilation
For the 2009 walk-ons, Stanford's 68-24 obliteration
of Wake Forest in early 2010 stands apart from the
others as far as on-field memories go.
It was the Cardinal's first time wearing black uniforms, and the
lopsided score meant significant playing time for the team's
"We'll definitely have fond memories of those uniforms," Knapp said.
"When you're that deep on the depth chart and you get up by 20
points, you start stretching out a bit. You start talking to the
other guys, and you say, 'All right, we need a couple more.’"
Knapp hauled in a first down reception in that game, while Etiz
forced a fumble. Kynes, who walked on the season after and quickly
earned special teams action, was not part of the Wake Forest
showcase. Stutz, though, achieved the walk-on's ultimate dream that
night: He scored a touchdown from two yards out.
"Seeing my parents after the game was surreal," he said. "But the
next day, looking at all the photos, that summarizes what this team
is all about. After I scored, I could see all of the starters
celebrating and going crazy. You'd think that, up 68-24, Andrew Luck
would have something better to do, but he was eagerly watching me
score that touchdown."
As far as Rudy-like moments go, Stutz's score is on par with
Kynes' memory a year later. In a desperate attempt to make the
travel squad so that his Virginia-based parents could see him play
at Duke in 2011, Kynes wrecked himself throughout a week of grueling
"My shoulders were all bruised, and I was getting stingers in my
neck and my arm. It was my chance," he recalls his maniacal effort
to make the traveling roster.
After practice, Kynes was dismayed to learn that he had not made the
cut. But the coaching staff had a chance to reconsider after
reviewing film of his supercharged last-ditch effort, and his phone
rang later that night.
"Cason, would you like to come to Duke with us?" David Shaw asked.
The Stanford Experience
Etiz, Knapp, Kynes, and Stutz have now all finished their journeys
on The Farm. They'll all enter the working world in the Bay Area
with nostalgic vibes emanating from Stanford at full force.
"I was biking home one night a couple weeks ago, past all the
freshman dorms with their lights on," Etiz said. "I said to myself,
these kids have the greatest three years ahead of them, and they
don't even realize that. When you're in the moment, you're just
taking things as they are; you're not fully appreciating them as
much. Once you realize time is winding down, that time is finite,
you start appreciating things more."
Stay tuned for Part 2 of The Bootleg's exclusive series with
Stanford's graduated walk-on warriors, which will return to the
Stanford offseason theme from yet another angle. You'll learn more
details about the Cardinal's summer conditioning success.
David Lombardi is the Stanford
Insider for The Bootleg. Check him out at www.davidlombardisports.com
and follow him on Twitter @DavidMLombardi.
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